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Posts Tagged ‘Upstairs at the Gatehouse’

This is the third year The Mill at Sonning have put a big musical on their small stage, striking gold yet again. It’s amazing how quickly traditions can be established and these shows are already firm seasonal favourites; I now can’t imagine a Christmas without them.

I’ve got a very soft spot for this tale of gamblers, showgirls and the Salvation Army on the streets of 50’s New York City, with a brief visit to the playground that was pre-Castro Cuba. My love of it started at Bristol Old Vic in the 70’s, confirmed by three visits to the iconic NT production in 1982, 1990 & 1996, two to the 2005 Donmar West End revival, the 2015 Chichester production both there and in London, a fine production on the fringe Upstairs at the Gatehouse, in GSMD & LAMDA drama schools and at Wandsworth Prison! It always brings me joy.

The strengths of Joseph Pitcher’s production are the outstanding cast, exceptional musical standards and thrillingly staged scenes in Havana and the sewers of New York. In the opening scene it struggles to conjure the street-life of New York City, but it quickly grows and draws you in to the world of lovable rogues, earnest missionaries and seemingly hopeless relationships. Showstoppers like Luck Be a Lady and Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat sit alongside comic gems A Bushel and a Peck and Take Back Your Mink and romantic ballads I’ll Know and I’ve Never Been in Love Before. I loved the curtain call with the entire cast dressed in Salvation Army uniform with tambourines.

Stephane Anelli makes a great commitment-phobic Nathan, desperate for a venue for his game, bullied by Big Jule from Chicago when he gets one. Natalie Hope is outstanding as Adelaide, capturing her indefatigable devotion to Nathan, great at both the comedy and the naivety, with a spot-on accent. Victoria Serra excels at the earnestness, drunken dancing and helpless infatuation of Sarah, singing beautifully. Richard Carson has a commanding presence as expert gambler Sky and genuine passion in his pursuit of Sarah. Four fine leads and an excellent supporting cast.

I’m now looking forward to what they dish up in Sonning next year, and to my next Guys & Dolls, wherever that might be.

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This 2009 musical adaptation of the 1980 film of the same name only survived four months on Broadway and has yet to make it to the West End, though a UK tour briefly visited the suburbs. So this London fringe debut is particularly welcome, to give us a chance to work out why.

Patricia Resnick, who co-wrote the film, provides the book and Dolly Parton, who played Judy in the film, adds music and lyrics. Set in 1975, it tells the story of the ladies in the office of Consolidated Industries, who’s CEO Franklin Hart is an obnoxious, corrupt, sexist misogynist. Life is hell under him, and after an accidental poisoning comes an intentional abduction whilst they gather enough evidence to get him his comeuppance and reform the workplace with family friendly policies at the same time.

I’m not sure why it didn’t do better on Broadway; it seems to me to be perfect musical comedy fare for a New York audience, though perhaps too American for the West End. Perhaps it was the feminist message?! There are some good country sounding songs and some funny lyrics. The book may be a bit lightweight, but it does the job. In this production, the design is functional, but a bit dull, and the choreography is a touch over-emphatic, trying a bit too hard, though I did like the country line-dancing references.

Though the performers were amplified, I missed some of the lyrics and dialogue because of the balance with the overloud band and the positioning of performers in the space. The three leads are all very good – Pippa Winslow as Violet, Amanda Coutts as Judy and Louise Olley as Doralee – and for once dodgy wigs seem appropriate. Leo Sene made a decent baddie as Hart, though he shouted when he should have sang. It’s a fine energetic and enthusiastic supporting cast.

Not a landmark musical, but good fun and Joseph Hodges’ production is well worth catching, while you can.

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This 1978 musical is based on Jack Rosenthal’s 1976 TV play of the same name. It seems to me to be an unlikely collaboration – book by Rosenthal himself, the master of gritty realism, a score by conservative Broadway composer Jules Styne (Gypsy and Funny Girl, 20 and 15 years earlier respectively) and Lloyd-Webber’s regular lyricist Don Black! 

The fact it’s taken 37 years to be revived is partly due to Rosenthal’s refusal when he was alive, haunted by his relationship with Styne and his dislike of the Broadway-style production of Martin Charmin (the basis for his play Smash, revived recently at the Menier – https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2011/04/15/smash!). This version is revised by David Thompson, original lyricist Don Black and director Stewart Nicholls, going back to source material and scaling it down, losing a number of extraneous characters.

Elliott Green is 13 and its time for his Bar Mitzva, the Jewish boy-to-man ritual. The first act sees the preparations and panic from mum Rita and back seat resignation by taxi driver dad Victor. Though Elliott is refusing to get his hair cut, everything else is on plan – until Elliott does a runner from the synagogue. In the second act, his whereabouts are leaked by school friend Denise and big sis Lesley persuades him to return home to face the music.

I felt the story might be pared back a bit too much; the second half in particular isn’t meaty enough. Styne’s score is very un-Broadway and very much in keeping with the material and Black’s lyrics are witty. The layout of the theatre results in a wide playing area which had both good and bad points, but I liked the authentic 70’s sensibility of Grace Smart’s design.

It’s great to see Sue Kelvin again and she makes a brilliant archetypal Jewish mom, well matched by Robert Maskell’s Victor. Lara Stubbs as Lesley and Nicholas Corre as her boyfriend Harold share the vocal honours. 13-year-old Adam Bregman steals the show though as Elliott, an assured and confident performance of great charm.

It works well as a chamber piece for eight actors and a 4-piece band, though it’s not as successful a musical adaptation as Rosenthal’s Spend Spend Spend some 20 years later. Despite protestations to the contrary by its creators at the time, I think the show still resonates more with a Jewish audience. 

A gold star to Aria Entertainment for giving us the chance to see it after such a long time.

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It’s not even four years since this show ended its 2-year West End run and we’re already getting the first fringe revival here Upstairs at the Gatehouse, and a new regional production in Leicester’s Curve in a few months time. It’s a good choice for a Christmas show and a bit of a coup for this North London theatre.

A show about the deeply conservative, thoroughly traditional and quintessentially American college system would normally be a real turn-off for me, but it’s tongue is so firmly in its cheek, it’s a real hoot and a feel-good treat. I saw the West End production three times! Blonde bimbo Elle Woods follows her obnoxious ex-fiancée to Harvard only to be humiliated by him, his new girlfriend and most of her fellow students, but she’s determined to prove she’s got brains and gets herself onto the professor’s team assisting in a legal case where her girlie knowledge comes into its own. Of course, she ends up winning the case and admired by everyone (except the professor, whose sexism gets him his comeuppance), and rejects the ex-fiancée’s fresh advances for life with the much nicer Emmett. It’s a good score and it’s very funny, which is what makes it overcome its unpromising starting point.

I’m not sure the traverse staging does it many favours; despite being amplified, and accompanied by a relatively quiet band, too many words are lost. It’s also a touch rough at the edges, with a very inexperienced cast, but I felt it made up for this with enthusiasm and energy and though one can’t expect something as polished as Jerry Mitchell’s Savoy Theatre production, it won me over and proved to be a fun end to my theatrical year. Abbie Chambers makes an impressive professional debut as Elle and both the loves of her life – Robert Colvin and Ross Barnes – perform well. It’s a good ensemble in which I particularly enjoyed Jodie Jacobs characterisation of hairdresser Paulette.

If you don’t go expecting the production values and polish of the West End, you’ll have a lot of fun.

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This show features in many lists of all-time Best Musicals; it’s certainly in my top 10, maybe my top 5. Yet there have only been two major London productions in the 33 years I’ve lived here, though the NT one had three incarnations (including a 1990 one day only tribute to their original Sky, Ian Charleson; for me, a highlight in a lifetime of theatre-going) and between the two they ran for six years at the NT or in the West End. To stave off withdrawal symptoms, we got a very impressive fringe production Upstairs at the Gatehouse a couple of years ago and a LAMDA one a couple of years before that. So there was no hesitation on my part in making the trip to Chichester!

Damon Runyon’s story of loveable rogues, gullible girls and evangelical (homeland) missionaries is timeless. The characters are beautifully drawn and the situations ripe for both comedy and romance. Good and bad are pitted against one another only to become mutually dependent and mutually beneficial. The bad guy gets his good doll, the good doll gets her bad guy and we send them off on a wave of warmth and goodwill. From the Runyonland overture to the wedding finale, it captivates you. It’s the epitome of the feel-good show.

Peter McKintosh’s brilliant set has an arc of hoarding fragments surrounded by lightbulbs reflected in the shiny black stage. When only the lightbulbs are lit, it’s the New York skyline, when the signs are lit you’re on the street. I’m not sure why they needed to import an American director, but his staging is very good. I’m also not sure why they need ballet star Carlos Acosta as choreographer as ‘co-choreographer’ Andrew Wright is perfectly capable on his own – given that they ‘have form’ with Adam Cooper, perhaps it’s all part of a ballet dancer Career Management ‘transitions’ programme. Anyway, it’s great choreography, particularly in showstoppers Luck Be A Lady & Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat.

At first I thought Sophie Thompson was over-cooking Miss Adelaide, as she has a tendency to do, but she won me over, providing many of the shows laughs but still breaking our hearts in her Second Lament. Peter Polycarpou was simply perfect as Nathan, the most loveable of all the rogues; a lighter touch than previous interpretations. Less experienced in musicals, Jamie Parker was a revelation as Sky, light on his feet and vocally assured. Clare Foster also took a while to convince as Sarah, but when the actress let go as the character let go, she too won me over.  Harry Morrison follows two illustrious Nicely-Nicely’s (David Healy and Clive Rowe) but I liked his sweeter characterisation and he brought the house down rockin’ the boat. The rest of the cast rises to the occasion, busting with energy and enthusiasm.

I’m always nervous seeing a show when you think you’ve seen the definitive production, in this case Richard Eyre for the NT, but yet again it entertains and thrills. It’s like seeing your best friend again after many years apart; hopefully (inevitably?!) this particular best friend will pay a visit to London in the not-too-distant future so that we can get together one more time.

 

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My review of 2012 takes the form of nine awards. There are none for performances as I find it impossible to choose and invidious to select from so much amazing talent. Here goes:

THEATRICAL EVENT OF THE YEAR – The Olympic Games Opening Ceremony, showing the world Britain at its theatrical best, and Globe to Globe, inviting the world to perform its greatest playwright on his ‘home stage’ – both once-in-a-lifetime experiences. Honourable mention to the The Bomb at the Tricycle, the latest in their deeply rewarding reviews of history, world events and global issues.

MOST EXCITING EVENING OF THE YEAR (or possibly my life!) – You Me Bum Bum Train, the most extraordinary adrenalin rush as you perform in 13 scenes from conducting an orchestra to operating a digger, travelling between them through pipes, holes & chutes.

SOLO SHOW – Mark Thomas’ autobiographical Bravo Figaro, funny and moving in equal measure.

BEST OUTSIDE LONDON – National Theatre of Wales’ CoriolanUs in an aircraft hanger at RAF St. Athan; the other highlight of the World Shakespeare Festival, part of the Cultural Olympiad. Wonderful Town is worthy of mention as the touring musical that really should have come to the West End.

NEW PLAYThis House at the Cottesloe, a play about British politics from 1974 to 1979 that was more enlightening than living through it (by a man who is too young to have lived through it), yet entertaining and funny. Honorable mentions to Red Velvet at the Tricycle, In Basildon at the Royal Court and Last of the Haussmanns & The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nightime – both also at the National, which at last found its new writing form.

PLAY REVIVAL – Desire Under the Elms at the Lyric Hammersmith, a stunning revival of an OK play in a year of many gems, amongst which I would single out A Doll’s House at the Young Vic, She Stoops to Conquer at the NT, Philadelphia, Here I Come at the Donmar, Cornelius at the Finborough,Vieux Carre at the King’s Head, A Long Day’s Journey into Night in the West End and both of the radical Julius Caesar’s – the African one for the RSC and the all-female one at the Donmar.

NEW MUSICALA Winter’s Tale at the Landor. The easiest category to call in a very lean year, with Soho Cinders, Daddy Long Legs and Loserville the only other contenders – but that takes nothing away from the gem that Howard Goodall’s show was.

MUSICAL REVIVAL – Sweeney Todd, though this is the toughest category with no less than 10 other contenders – Patience, The Fix and Call Me Madam at the Union, Gay’s the Word & Merrie England at the Finborough, Guys & Dolls Upstairs at the Gatehouse, Curtains at the Landor, Boy Meets Boy at Jermyn Street, Merrily We Roll Along at the Menier, Opera North’s Carousel at the Barbican and another Chichester transfer, Singing in the Rain, in the West End.

TURKEY OF THE YEAR – The NT’s Damned for Despair, though this year there were also a trio of visiting turkeys, all at the Barbican – Big & Small, Nosferatu and Forests – and a pair of site specific turkeys – Babel & The Architects.

2012 will be hard to beat!

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This is one of my Top Ten musicals and quite possibly the greatest musical comedy ever written, so I take every opportunity to see it. I think I’ve seen every London production in the last 30 years, some of them on multiple occasions. I was a little hesitant about this first(?) fringe outing though, as it’s a big show. I thought staging it Upstairs at the Gatehouse, though bigger than many fringe venues, was somewhat challenging. In the end I couldn’t resist and boy am I glad I didn’t!

What director Racky Plews, choreographer Lee Proud and designer Martin Thomas have done in this small space with a cast of 13, a 5-piece band and the budget of a small unfunded theatre is nothing short of miraculous. I have never enjoyed the show more and left the theatre on an extraordinary high. It came alive in the opening scene and never let go until we were shouting and cheering at the end (though we were also cheering during!).

Writers Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows were lucky enough to have Damon Runyon’s wonderful tales as a starting point. This world of loveable rogues & showgirls juxtaposed with the Salvation Army is made for musical comedy. The show links the stories of  naive showgirl Adelaide & marriage shy Nathan and gambler Sky & missionary Sarah. Nathan has to find a venue for his floating crap game and continue to avoid marriage to Adelaide (who’s told her mother they’ve been married for 12 years and have 5 children!) whilst Sky has to get a Salvation Army officer to dinner in Cuba to win a bet, then deliver 12 sinners to her mission to avoid its closure and win his girl.

Frank Loesser’s lyrics are sharp and funny and his score littered with so many classic songs. Some are showstoppers, notably Luck be a Lady and Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat  (when I went to a 1990 charity performance of Richard Eyre’s NT production, they had to sing this six times before the audience would stop applauding and cheering!) but here even lesser numbers become showstoppers such that you’re on a rollercoaster of fun that just doesn’t stop from start to finish.

The four leads are all superb and really well matched. Amy Bailey makes earnest Sarah’s transition to lovestruck believable and seemless. It doesn’t take long before you’ve fallen for Rebecca Sutherland’s squeaky Adelaide and her numbers with the Hot Box girls are delicious. Jamie Sampson has the right mix of cheeky swagger and charm as Sky and you know you’d have such fun if James Kermack’s hapless Nathan was your friend. They all sing and dance brilliantly.

In a faultless supporting cast, Jos Slovik (who’s been one-to-watch since Spring Awakening) is great as Benny and his duet with Patrick Rufey’s terrific Nicely Nicely in the title song has never been better in my experience. Connor Dowling gives Officer Brannigan a clever, more manic interpretation. Many of the cast double-up so well that I couldn”t always work out which ones were which. Time for another nod to a casting director – a gold star to Ri McDaid-Wren!

They’ve had to be very inventive to stage this so well in a small space with a small cast. The staging of the phone conversations is a hoot and the solution to the problem of delivering 12 souls to the mission (given that 4 of the cast of 13 are ‘missionaries’!) is inspired. There may not be much of an ‘ensemble’ for the Broadway and Havana scenes, but they still thrilled. We move from streets to clubs to missions to sewers swiftly, with some of the scene changes themselves choreographed.

This musical heaven cost 10p a minute – less than a quarter of a West End show and at least 4 times as good as most! There was a spring in my step and a smile on my face all the way down Highgate Hill. If I have a more enjoyable evening of musical theatre this year I shall be a lucky boy indeed.

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